Writer: Samuel Beckett
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
When Jess Thom first came across Beckett’s odd monologue Not I she says it felt as though he had written it for her. Mouth speaks for fifteen minutes at breakneck speed on a dark stage. She’s been struck virtually mute by an unnamed incident in her life until she suddenly has the urge to share her pitiful tale. Thom, who has Tourettes, recognised the frustration, weirdness and humour of it all at once. Like Mouth, Thom has no control over her body and her speech. Her tics, both vocal and physical, punctuate everything she says and does. She bangs her chest, and has a list of words that she says involuntarily thousands of times a day, the most common being ‘biscuit’.
Not I is a somewhat baffling piece of theatre in the hands/mouth of any performer, a piece that requires – you might think – a huge amount of poise and control. So it’s something of a delight that Thom has taken it on, bringing an extra level of jeopardy to a piece of performance that feels like something of a tightrope walk. All of this could so easily go wrong.
The scene is set, though, right from the start for nothing to go wrong. After all, what exactly constitutes ‘wrong’? Most people won’t have ever seen this play before, even fewer would know if it was word perfect, and who cares? We’re here for a bit of wonder. All the performances are ‘relaxed’ which means you can sit, or stand, or lie on the floor. You can tic, or yawn, or laugh whether it’s supposed to be funny or not. Given that Not I is such a conundrum in itself, we’re reminded that each of us has a different relationship with, and reaction to, Mouth. Thom herself talks, in the Q&A after the performance, about years of avoiding the theatre because her tics might disturb others, joking that her decision to perform was a chance to be in the one seat where she wouldn’t get thrown out.
Thom is joined on stage by Charmaine Wombwell, actor and BSL interpreter, who creates a parallel performance of the text. Her expressive physicality is a wonderful counterpoint to the restrictions put on Thom by Beckett’s strict staging.
Thom is a great performer. She speaks at pace and with clarity, tics mostly occurring in the pauses, giving an added beat. We both hear their rhythm and edit them out. A short film, shown after the performance, explains the decision to make the piece and the process of getting it to the stage, and a Q&A offers the chance for the audience to share their thoughts, ask questions, and hear Thom’s intelligent and funny take on Beckett, Mouth, Tourettes and life in general.
Sometimes, when theatre-makers re-interpret things, it can be hard to understand what it adds to the experience. Here, Thom’s genuine feel for the weirdness of the piece makes this sideways take on Not I a triumphant success.
Reviewed on 21 November 2018 | Image: